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Honda Once Made a Quirky Jeep-like Dune Buggy Called the Vamos

Before everyone settled on the front-wheel-drive-based crossover SUV as the dominant form factor for mainstream vehicles, automakers experimented. This is especially true of the up-and-comers that were rapidly rebuilding their product lineups after the devastation of a world war. You had rear-engined economy cars like the Beetle, the delightfully ingenious Mini, and all sorts of wildness coming out of Japan. Honda, in the 1960s, might have been the weirdest of them all, playing with chain-drive sports cars and air-cooled front-drive sedans. But the strangest and coolest Honda was arguably the Vamos.

Part beach jolly, part utility pickup, part urban commuter, the Vamos ingested a lot of the weirdest trends from abroad and interpreted them in an absolutely unique way. Clearly, the Vamos was inspired by vehicles like the Citroen Mehari, the Mini Moke, and the famous Meyers Manx—all open-air recreational utility vehicles based on conventional cars.

But the Vamos isn’t a clone of any of those models. Instead, it shows off the individualistic streak that Honda became famous for. The cab-over-like front end featured a spare tire (“to absorb shock in case of emergency”), adorable vintage-looking headlights, and thoughtful—but probably useless—passenger protection in the form of a thin rollover hoop and sidebars. Without doors, those little bars were intended to keep most of the passengers inside the car. At the rear sat a small cargo area, making the Vamos a trucklet of sorts.

Three rudimentary top options were available. A “single cab” version had a bigger cargo area behind a single row of seats. A second soft top covered the second row, and a third made the Vamos a soft-sided van.

Where’s the engine? In the middle. Honda lifted it from the unusual T360 micro-pickup. The Vamos weighed just 1,150 pounds because its bodywork was so minimal. It made do with just under 30 hp, which were channeled through a four-speed manual gearbox that sent power exclusively to the rear wheels. Honda hoped Vamos buyers would hop in and seek adventure (or errands), and marketed the unusual utility car to both business and unconventional private owners.

As with its contemporaries, the Vamos was the sort of fun-seeking nonconformist vehicle that captured one end of the spectrum of its era. Its quirkiness was echoed in the first wave of compact crossovers that featured convertible tops and outdoorsy marketing materials. Case in point, the original Toyota RAV4 two-door convertible. Will fun multi-purpose vehicles like this make a comeback? We hope so.

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